Main Engine Cut Off

Gwynne Shotwell on The Space Show

The entire hour-long show is absolutely worth a listen—she gives a good update on where SpaceX is at, currently—but one particular moment stood out.

At the 26:55 mark, she edited herself away from saying that Raptor’s primary purpose is to power the ITS. She instead said Raptor’s original purpose was to power the ITS.

Between that self-edit, the fact that she made it clear that SpaceX is still considering a Raptor-powered Falcon upper stage, and the fact that she said openly that SpaceX wants to build a reusable upper stage, some pretty solid assumptions can be made about what’s happening internally: they’re working on a fully reusable Raptor-powered upper stage to fly on Falcon.

Missing the Mark on SpaceX, Falcon Heavy

Andy Pasztor hasn’t been very fond of SpaceX over the years, but his recent article on SpaceX’s double-launch weekend is something else. Let’s start here:

After using previously flown main engines to blast a Bulgarian telecommunications satellite into orbit Friday from a Florida launchpad, the closely held company on Sunday afternoon used a California Air Force base to send a batch of 10 smaller satellites into space for Iridium Communications Inc., SpaceX’s largest commercial customer.

They used a little bit more than just the engines.

Juggling launch dates, which happens to a lesser extent with every rocket operator, is further complicated for SpaceX because it has to match customer technical needs with a range of rocket variants the company flies to orbit.

Right now, SpaceX flies one variant of one launch vehicle. Arianespace flies 3 different vehicles with 2 configurations of Ariane 5. The king of configuration, ULA, flies 17 total configurations—4 Delta IV Medium configurations, Delta IV Heavy, and 12 Atlas V configurations. And those numbers don’t include the upcoming dual engine Centaur variants, which will push ULA’s configuration count to double digits.

How any honest, thinking journalist could write such a sentence about SpaceX boggles my mind.

And finally, on Falcon Heavy:

After years of delays, the company plans to launch its significantly beefed-up derivative rocket, called the Falcon Heavy, for the first time later this year. The demonstration flight will be closely watched by both the Pentagon and satellite operators, prospective customers eager to benefit from the Falcon Heavy’s greater power versus the Falcon 9.

This is right down the middle of what is typically said about Falcon Heavy—it’s been delayed years, SpaceX might finally get around to it this year, and tons of customers are clamoring to fly on it.

To be fair, it isn’t only Pasztor who is missing the mark on Falcon Heavy—it’s just about everyone.

Quite honestly, there is almost zero current demand for it. The only known payloads on SpaceX’s manifest that Falcon 9 could not lift are Red Dragon missions and the private lunar flight.

All other manifested Falcon Heavy flights are launches that SpaceX could fly on Falcon 9 but would rather not, because they hate flying Falcon 9 expendably. STP-2 only requires Falcon Heavy because the Air Force is using the low-priority research mission to certify the launch vehicle—it is nowhere close to a Falcon Heavy-class payload.

The lack of existing demand now doesn’t mean there aren’t payloads that will require Falcon Heavy once it’s flying—there is almost certainly an “If you build, it they will come.” dynamic at play. But the idea that there are customers elbowing each other out of the way like it’s Black Friday at Target is a bit of an embellishment.

Flight of the Aerospike: Episode 1

It’s been hard to get a sense of what ARCA has been up to lately, and how seriously we should take this project. But this week, they released the first episode of a new series of videos leading up to their launch of a subscale vehicle powered by a linear aerospike engine.

They’re planning on launching Demonstrator 3 this August from Spaceport America. But I’ve yet to be able to find anything on whether or not they’ve done any engine firings, which is a bit perplexing. Generally, my interest isn’t piqued until I see some engine activity. Nonetheless, it’s good to see some hardware in the video, and to hear from people working on the project.

SpaceX’s Mars V2 Plan

Elon Musk on Twitter:

Mars V2 plan coming soon, which I think addresses the most fundamental flaw in V1: how to pay for development & operation of giant rockets

One way to address that: avoid paying for development and operation of giant rockets at first. Starting with a smaller, Raptor-powered vehicle that could fly from 39A with minimal infrastructure changes would be a good idea.

Scaled hardware to validate the architecture, big enough for initial Mars missions with a few crew members, and small enough to be used commercially for other tasks.

And to make things really interesting, give it a payload capacity similar to SLS Block 1B.

T+50: Boeing Gets XS-1, SpaceX Gets X-37B

Boeing’s proposal won Phases 2 and 3 of DARPA’s XS-1 program, and I’m pretty bummed about it. And the Air Force announced that SpaceX will launch the fifth X-37B mission in August.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 14 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Laszlo, Jamison, Guinevere, Nadim, and four anonymous—and 52 other supporters on Patreon.

S7 Orders 12 Zenit Vehicles

Interfax, on the newly-owned Sea Launch ordering more vehicles:

On April 28, Pivdenmash and S7 Sea Launch Limited signed a contract for manufacturing and supplies of 12 carrier rockets of the Zenit family for space exploration and use for peaceful purposes as part of the Sea Launch and the Land Launch international programs, the press service said.

“A great step in overcoming the deep crisis, in which Pivdenmash has been since 2013 and which was caused by a dramatic drop in output, was made by signing of this contract,” the press service said.

I’m very curious to see how the second life of Sea Launch will play out.

Relatedly, I haven’t been too kind to Antares lately, but this is actually good news for Orbital ATK. Zenit and Antares share a manufacturer, so the manufacturing of Antares’ first stage has been a major source of distress. Any additional work for the companies involved in Antares should help Orbital ATK breathe a bit easier, but this all really highlights the unsustainable and ill-fit nature of Antares.

Random Antares Media Day

I’m still not quite sure what to make of the random Antares media day that took place Monday at Wallops. They’re three months out from OA-8 and had nothing particularly newsy to announce. Cygnus isn’t integrated and viewable yet, as has been the case for past events like this.

I can’t help but think Orbital ATK got a bit nervous about people questioning Antares’ future, and are still trying desperately to sell a flight to anyone but NASA for CRS.

This, from Jeff Foust of SpaceNews, is of interest:

Culbertson said that Orbital ATK plans to use only the Antares for the foreseeable future. That includes the four remaining missions on its original Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, including the OA-8 mission, as well as the six missions on its CRS-2 follow-on contract awarded last year. NASA has given an authorization to proceed with the first of those six, which he said is expected to launch some time in 2019.

OA-5 used the first two engines of the first 20 engines Orbital ATK purchased from Energomash, with two remaining options of 20 engines each. That means they have 9 flights’ worth of engines left in the first batch. With 10 flights listed above, I’d bet they don’t plan on acting on the second option until they’re able to land another customer.

If they don’t convince someone to fly, they won’t take the second option, will put one of these Cygnus flights on another vehicle, and that’ll be it for Antares.

What GSLV-MK3 Means to India

Last week, while I was heading to the keynote at Apple’s WWDC, India successfully launched their new vehicle, the Geostationary Launch Vehicle Mark 3.

Sridhar Narayanan wrote an incredibly-detailed article for The Planetary Society that I highly recommend reading. It’s a great history of India’s program, a great overview of where they are today, and really gives you perspective on what this launch means for them:

Crewed missions and planetary science apart, the main reason for the development of the GSLV-MK3 is to launch heavier commercial satellites to geostationary orbit. ISRO’s heaviest communications satellites are already in the 3 metric ton weight range, and the organization currently lacks the capability to launch them using its own launchers, relying on Arianespace instead. With the qualification of GSLV-MK3, ISRO will finally succeed in its quest to develop, build and launch its own payloads into space without relying on other organizations. In addition to its own missions, the rocket also provides ISRO greater options in the competitive commercial satellite launch market, where it could only offer its services for small satellites so far—mostly Earth-observation and experimental/research satellites. With the GSLV-MK3, ISRO can offer launch services for heavy communications satellites.

It’s a big deal for India and where they are today, but the bottom line is that any launch vehicle program relying on hypergolics and/or solids for the boost stage is most definitely not the future.

We’ll see where they go with it once it starts flying regularly, but it’s important to remember the development timelines of India’s programs. From Caleb Henry at SpaceNews:

Central to the success of yesterday’s launch was the performance of a new domestic cryogenic third stage. ISRO’s Propulsion Complex director, P.V. Venkatakrishnan, said the C25 engine took 15 years to create, starting in 2002, following five years of background work that began as an idea in 1997.

When the idea was hatched, Jeff Bezos was driving a 1996 Honda Accord and had just taken Amazon public, and Elon Musk was graduating from Penn, just a few blocks from where I sit now.